Art’s Billion-Dollar Bet

jasper johns flag Art’s Billion Dollar BetFor more than a quarter-century in New York City, the blockbuster sales of Impressionist, Modern and contemporary art have started on the first Tuesday of May. These sales are the keenly watched bellwether of the luxury-goods world, setting the tone and tastes for months to come. But this season, in which nearly a billion dollars’ worth of paintings, sculpture and drawings will be offered over 10 days, isn’t like the others. There’s not much suspense. Despite a lingering recession and art’s often astronomical prices, these auctions at Christie’s, Sotheby’s and boutique player Phillips de Pury are almost sure to do well: A spate of aggressive presale placement, complicated financial deals and, in some cases, unrealistically low starting bids almost ensure it. For another thing, these sales, usually a cheat sheet to the hot new names in art, noticeably lack young artists. (The buzziest paintings of the season? A Pablo Picasso and a Jasper Johns.)

Auctioneers said that they worked backward this year in putting together the sales. They would determine an artist whose prices might not have run up so much in recent years, and specifically “go into the market and try to find work by that artist,” said Tobias Meyer, a vice chairman of Sotheby’s. Italian artist Maurizio Cattelan, for example, “was not like Jeff [Koons], very much in a separate universe. We felt it was really right for a move into the market.” Once the property was in-house, the impulse was to price it low, said Brett Gorvy, deputy chairman of Christie’s Americas, to ensure as much interest in it as possible. The hope: bidding wars. After all, the rich are still rich and are apparently eager to forget the art market’s swoon, as evidenced by the success of some recent auctions. As one collector put it, “Collecting is like smoking. When you learn cigarettes are bad for you, do you really stop?”

Over the next 10 days, normal people wrestling with the recession may be shocked when the art bubble protects its inhabitants, but here’s a look at why it probably will and what insiders are talking about:

Who’s Buying?
For the first time ever, people from all over the world. Sotheby’s says it has paddle requests from 52 countries this year, up from 30 two years ago, according to Impressionist and Modern Art department head Simon Shaw. Highlights from the sale were toured to London (where Russian collectors generally shop), Hong Kong and Doha, Qatar, this spring. It’s not that foreign collectors have suddenly fallen for icons of Western culture: Art is seen as a highly liquid and mobile investment worldwide.

Who’s Hot?
“Ours is not a very young sale,” said Mr. Meyer. “It’s a segment of the market that is fluctuating wildly.” That said, a couple of younger artists do have works up for bid, including a first-timer in the New York evening auctions, Matthew Day Jackson. Born in 1974, he was a breakout star of the 2005 “Greater New York” exhibition at P.S.1. (Mr. Meyer said the artist was recommended by younger staffers in his office.)

But look for the works of 40-something conceptual sculptor Tom Friedman to climb. Several are included in the estate sale of thriller writer Michael Crichton at Christie’s, and record prices for masterpieces in the sale should lift Mr. Friedman’s prices also.

Who’s Winning?
In the centuries-old version of the Pepsi-Coke battle (both major auction houses were founded in the 1700s), Christie’s is the hands-down winner this season. The British auctioneer has the only two major estates on the block, the spectacular Crichton collection and the Frances Lasker Brody collection, with its impressive 1932 Picasso. (That year is something of a Holy Grail year for Picasso collectors: Casino magnate Steve Wynn, hedge funder Steve Cohen and Leslie Wexner of the Limited own other Picassos from the period.) The giant portrait of the artist’s curvy mistress, Marie-Therese, could bring in excess, or well in excess, of $50 million.

Sotheby’s has fewer highlights, but they include a gorgeous Henri Matisse vase of flowers, a vibrant red Mark Rothko and an acid-purple self-portrait of Andy Warhol. It carries an estimate of $10 million to $15 million.

Who Is Everyone Talking About?
Asher Edelman. The 1980s financier and collector, often referred to as one of the Wall Streeters Oliver Stone based the character Gordon Gekko on, has arranged to offer some art sellers what are essentially options on art, people close to the auctions said. In sophisticated financial transactions, his firm is agreeing, for a fee, to buy a work at a discounted price if it doesn’t sell at auction. And while the mechanism is raising some questions, some say he has had considerable interest in his “assurance” auction product.

How Will the Johns Do?
Among art worlders, there is no funnier joke than the following sentence, the headline of a recent wire-service story: “Michael Crichton’s art collection estimated at $75 million.” The reason it is so amusing to insiders is that the odds are decent that a single painting from the 150-work collection up at Christie’s will make more than that: Jasper Johns’ fabulous Flag. Crichton, who died in 2008 of cancer, was a friend of the painter’s, and the artwork hung, for years, in his bedroom. The heirs waited on the sidelines for the art market to recover before bringing his collection to market, finally deciding the time was right.

Where’s Damien?
On Sept. 16, 2008, the day after Lehman Brothers filed for bankruptcy and the date generally given as the start of the recession, a Sotheby’s auction in London of works by Damien Hirst brought $201 million. This season features very few works by the British art superstar. Said one collector: “There’s a sense of ‘Why bother?’ It’s time to see other people.”

apeers@observer.com